Studied Ambiguities


Ambiguity or Opportunity? photo by ArtistIvanChew (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Have you ever been in a situation where two parties who differ on some important matter (and you may have been one of them, or trying to mediate between the two) are trying to find their way to agreement so as to collaborate and live more charitably with each other, or outright join forces. Often, it is important to articulate this agreement verbally and in writing, and this, perhaps is where things are most difficult.

Words matter. And words don’t always mean the same things to different people. Often, the attempt to find the right words to delineate an agreement surfaces the places where disagreement still exists.

I came across this recently in a critical discussion of an effort between a group of Evangelicals, and a group of Catholics during the 1990’s to articulate an agreement that expressed their unity around Christ and his gospel. (This is in R. C. Sproul’s Getting the Gospel Right; review forthcoming)

The writer noted a number of areas that he felt were “studied ambiguities.” On the face of it, these were statements both parties could agree upon, and yet were capable of interpretations that would reflect the historic differences between the parties. Elsewhere in the document, some of these differences were acknowledged, but he felt that the document purported a greater degree of agreement, and even unity than the author thought warranted.

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon. What is “studied ambiguity?” A sentence may be ambiguous in different ways. Sometimes it is lexically ambiguous (“I went down to the bank” could mean I went down by the riverside, or to my local financial institution). Sometimes, it may simply be syntactically ambiguous. (What, for example does “I ate the cookies on the couch” mean?) At other times, the meaning of the words may be clear and there may be a particular understanding that the person uttering the statement intends, and yet it is capable of more than one meaning. What differentiates “studied ambiguity” from these others types of ambiguity is that the person or persons uttering or writing the statement intend the possibility of multiple interpretations and realize their words are capable of these interpretations.

Why do we use “studied ambiguity”? The main reason I can come up with is that parties who retain significant differences feel compelled to mute these to arrive at some semblance of agreement. I suspect, for example that there was much “studied ambiguity” that could be found in the statements of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta about their vision of a post-war world.

It seems that the aim of “studied ambiguity” is preserving tenuous alliances and coalitions, and the veneer of good feelings toward one another. In cultures where communication is indirect, it strikes me that this allows people to avoid outright confrontation over differences while working in indirect, and often behind-the-scenes ways, to reach a greater sense of agreement than could be achieved publicly. What seems important in this instance is that the parties are aware that they are farther apart than they seem and they are employing discreet mechanisms to address these differences.

What can be more troubling about this kind of communication is when people are intentionally misled to believe that a greater degree of agreement exists than is actually the case, because the words sound good, even though they mean something different to each party.

In the instance I mention above, it is interesting that those who participated in writing the agreement claim not to have consciously done this. They saw themselves as articulating areas of common agreement, some of which they saw as real breakthroughs, as well as areas where they still differed, some of which were substantial, as individuals in both parties acknowledged. Yet the tone of their final document conveyed a degree of agreement and even “unity” that others questioned in light of the substantive remaining differences and the multiple interpretations that could be drawn from the language.

And that leads me to wonder if there is another kind of ambiguity, what one might call unconscious ambiguity, where in a spirit of good will, people convey a sense of agreement, while being aware of difference, that nevertheless affirms the agreement of spirit the parties feel.

I’m having a hard time thinking of examples where ambiguous agreements turned out well–maybe someone else can help me think of one. More often, it seems, they result either in falling-out between parties, or compromises on deeply held values, practices, and beliefs to preserve “unity.” Yet I can see the temptation, particularly in our deeply divided society to try to come to these kinds agreements for fear of the alternative.

I wonder instead whether, on important things, we are talking about far longer processes than we ordinarily envision. Perhaps honest discussions that recognize common ground for limited collaborations while addressing honest differences that take longer times to change, because these involve changes in belief, and personal and institutional practice.

Getting to shared understandings on important things is genuinely hard work. Perhaps this is why Jesus blessed the peacemakers. It seems so urgent in a divided society. Studied or even unconscious ambiguity is a real temptation. Sometimes it doesn’t look that different from common ground. Yet agreements not rooted in truth engender suspicion and not trust, and unravel, or they relativize “truth.”

What do you think?

Review: Skunk Works

Skunk Works

Skunk WorksBen R. Rich and Leo Janos. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994.

Summary: The story of Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” operation that produced innovative planes and other products for the military including the U-2, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the F-117 Stealth fighter.

The term “skunk works” has become common parlance in the business and technical worlds for a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic control to work on advanced or secret projects. The development of the original Apple Macintosh computer is an example of a “skunk works” project. This book is the story of the original Skunk Works, a top secret operation with Lockheed responsible for building some of the most cutting-edge and innovative military aircraft. Ben Rich was the second boss over the Skunk Works, mentored under the legendary (and formidable) Clarence “Kelly” Johnson.

The book opens with the first test flight of the F-117, the first real stealth fighter, and the first plane built under Rich’s leadership after he took over from Kelly Johnson in 1975. He describes the process of winning the contract to develop the plane, and the incredible engineering work to make the plane practically invisible to enemy radar through a combination of flat surfaces and absorptive materials. One of the biggest problems turned out to be designing a canopy that would deflect radar while being able to be seen out of. Otherwise, the pilot’s head actually had a bigger radar profile than the plane! The biggest test of the plane was the bombing mission the first night of Operation Desert Storm, against heavily defended Baghdad, in which key command and control facilities, and communication facilities were taken out under heavy anti-aircraft fire without a single plane being lost, not only that night but throughout the conflict.

This was just one in a long line of innovative planes designed by the Skunk Works. Rich tells the story of how Kelly Johnson formed this secret operation within Lockheed in 1943 to develop a jet fighter (the P-80) to counter German development of similar technology. Rich describes his own initiation into the Skunk Works as a thermodynamicist brought on to help with the inlet design on the F-104 Starfighter, the first supersonic jet fighter. He was unsure how long he would work there.

Rich made the grade and goes on in the book to narrate the histories of two of the most innovative planes designed under Kelly Johnson’s leadership, the U-2 and the SR-71, both involved in overflights over the Soviet Union and other countries. The U-2 was designed to fly at 70,000 feet, with wings two-thirds as long as the fuselage which entailed special design challenges. It was put into use on overflights over the Soviet Union in 1956, securing critical intelligence on nuclear and conventional military capabilities until Gary Powers was shot down in 1960 (they actually thought they would only get two years of overflights in before this happened). Later it was used over Cuba, and the remarkable fact is that this plane is still in use, having gone through its latest upgrade in 2012.

Rich and his fellow engineers faced a whole different set of engineering challenges in designing the SR-71 Blackbird, capable of sustained Mach 3.2 speeds and flight at over 80,000 feet while taking crystal clear pictures. The plane still holds sustained speed records that have not been surpassed. It was the first titanium-bodied plane, used a special inlet cone design to force air into the engine at high altitudes, and one of the first to use stealth technology to reduce radar cross-sections.

The book mixes Rich’s narrative with “testimonials” from pilots who flew the planes, defense secretaries like Bill Perry, and national security figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski. More than simply a narrative of building innovative aircraft (and even a stealth ship), it is a narrative of what it was like to work under Kelly Johnson and how he shaped the Skunk Works. One of the most significant contributions Johnson made, referenced by many texts on “skunk works” was Kelly’s 14 Rules, that articulated the requirements of a top secret, lean, innovative, cost-effective organization free of bureaucratic control that inflates costs, bogs down development and stifles creativity. One of the rules also established alternative compensation policies that compensated for performance rather than number of reports.

Kelly was a formidable leader. He did not suffer fools gladly, losing him some contracts. He would not build a plane he didn’t believe in. He had zero tolerance for pretense. He had an amazing knowledge of every aspect of aviation engineering. He insisted that engineers work in close proximity to the shop floor. Rich speculates that such a leader probably would not be possible in his own era.

Rich’s concluding chapter, “Drawing the Right Conclusions” outlines his own ideas for more sensible procurement policies throughout the defense industry. He anticipates the widespread use of drones. I don’t know enough to determine whether any of his idea have been adopted, but they make sense if one wants both to control costs, and maintain a technological edge in weaponry.

It is fascinating to me that most of the applications of “skunk works” ideas have been in the technology world. I’m curious about the application of these ideas to the non-profit world, coming up with innovative ways to deliver services that better people’s lives. Often the challenge here is money to fund something outside of line management or support services, and satisfying funding entities that such an operation is not frivolous. My hunch is that there is a need for clear mission and bench marks, leadership that can manage lightly yet effectively a talented group of people, and good bridges back into the rest of the organization to test and implement ideas.

All that said, Rich has given us a fascinating narrative of the original Skunk Works, fascinating both for anyone interested in military aviation, and instructive for those wanting to learn key principles for skunk works-type operations.

Review: The Church as Movement

the church as movement

The Church as MovementJ.R. Woodward and Dan White Jr., Foreword by Alan Hirsch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.

Summary: An interactive guide for communities wanting to learn how to become “missional-incarnational movements” rather than “Christian-industrial complexes” through growth in eight competencies.

J.R. Woodward and Dan White Jr. believe there is something fundamentally wrong with an American church model focused around the metrics of “buildings, butts (in the seats), and budgets” (as one friend describes it). They refer to this as the “Christian-industrial complex” that has indeed become big business to the point that it shapes how Christians pursue life together and mission, and engage society. In this interactive guidebook, the authors propose a model of church as movement–one that focuses on our communion with God, our sentness as a community, and our co-mission to live as a “sign, foretaste, and instrument of his kingdom in ever-expanding geographical areas” (p. 23).

This happens as groups grow into eight competencies, around which the book is organized:

  • Movement Intelligence: Movements are on the street rather than the stage, multiply as they move outward and leverage a five-fold set of people gifts.
  • Polycentric Leadership: Movements organize around many centers of leadership in a flat structure rather than around a single leader over a hierarchical structure.
  • Being Disciples: Movements recognize that one must be a disciple to make disciples, growing in inward, outward, and upward journeys, overcoming soul pressures, and becoming sacred companions who experience a depth of vulnerability that enables people to embrace their true selves.
  • Making Disciples: Movements make disciples through “meta, reflective, and experiential” learning (a pedagogy used in this guide), build on a scaffolding of safety and stretching, and gather and develop discipleship cores through phases of forming, storming, norming and performing.
  • Missional Theology: Movements understand the missional story of which they are a part–God’s social and sending nature, the nature of his kingdom, the holistic gospel (in six acts), and the sacramental markers of baptism and the Lord’s table.
  • Ecclesial Architecture: This is not about church buildings but the structuring of a movement’s life around communion, community, and co-mission, the gathered and scattered rules of life that constitute a movement, and the different spaces of belonging (intimate, personal, social, and public) in which it exists.
  • Community Formation:  Movements develop a common life, a shared table and learning, healing, welcoming, liberating, and thriving environments. Movements are characterized by trust-building, truth-telling, and peacemaking.
  • Incarnational Practices: Movements come NEAR their neighborhoods: they learn its Narrative, Ethics, Associations, and Rituals and learn to be present in that context, often with the aid of a person of peace.

The guide follows a three-fold formational learning approach.

  1. Meta-learning is identifying the overarching essential truth in each section for one personally.
  2. Reflective learning explores how what you are learning makes you feel including points of conflict, clarity, or confusion.
  3. Experiential learning identifies real time action steps a group will take to attempt to put into practice what they are learning, and the learning that comes from this experience.

Each of the eight competencies has several sections concluding with a set of formational learning questions following this three-fold pattern. It is suggested that people work through this material with a group. Groups meeting weekly can take a section at a time and complete the guide in eight months. Alternately, groups meeting twice a month might take a chapter each time they meet and complete it in four months. The latter approach seems less workable to me because each competency provides several sections of content, difficult to cover adequately, and more difficult to experience in a single session every two weeks.

I can see several settings in which this might work. One would be for a church leadership team trying to make the transition from industrial complex to movement, to practice first within themselves and then to multiply through their church. A second would be for a small group within a church (or network of groups) who want to become “missional incarnational communities”. It would seem important after several weeks of meetings to “storm and norm” to get to a place of group ownership. Finally, a group, perhaps set apart by church to plant in a nearby community, might use this as a guide for laying the groundwork to plant.

What is helpful for all these groups is an approach that focuses on shared competencies rather than merely planting or growth strategies. Actually most of these flow from the practice of the competencies in a particular neighborhood context. So often, in the eagerness to “do something,” these competencies are neglected. Disciples are not developed. A nimble leadership is absent and there is a reversion to hierarchy, and often burnout. Instead of a compelling story, we recycle nostrums. Woodward and White, out of their own extensive experience of growing such movements provide a comprehensive guide for others warming to God’s missional heart.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — John Young


John Young Memorial, photo by Jack Pierce. (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Did you know that Youngstown gets its name from the first European-American to settle on and acquire the land?  Youngstown is literally “Young’s Town.” Sure, you knew that! That’s Youngstown history 101. What was interesting to me was to find out a bit more history about Young. Along the way, I discovered that his presence, on and off for under six years, was sufficient to shape the early contours of the city, still evident to this day, and to attract one of the key early settlers who helped found the city. I also discovered that there is some controversy about whether Young really is Youngstown’s first settler.

According to biographical information provided by Charles Young, a son of John Young to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society in 1875, John Young was born in 1763 in Petersborough, New Hampshire and moved to Whitestown, New York, about 1780. He married Mary Stone White in 1792. He moved to the Ohio lands in 1796, building a log cabin on the northeast bank of the Mahoning River near Spring Common. In 1797, he began the settlement of Youngstown, purchasing a township of 15,560 acres from the Connecticut Land Company for $16,085.16, with the establishment of the city being recorded in 1802. In 1799, his family moved to Youngstown and were there until 1803, when health concerns for Mary led them to return to New York. During his time in Youngstown he laid out the first plats of the city including Federal Street, Central Square, North, (now Wood) Street and South (now Front) Street, town lots and larger farm-size plats. After returning to Whitestown, he was involved in various public works in upstate New York until his death in 1825.

On Young’s first trip into the area, he and his surveyor Alfred Wolcott were reputed to have met up with Colonel James Hillman, who sighted smoke from a fire the Young party had set as he was canoeing up the Mahoning from Beaver, Pennsylvania. Young persuaded Hillman to join him for a “frolic” that evening (with an exchange of skins for whiskey). That supposedly led to Hillman deciding to settle in Youngstown. Hillman became Youngstown’s first constable, and later, during the war of 1812 led a militia that defended the area against Indian attacks. He later served as a representative in the state legislature, and is probably worthy of a post to more fully tell his story!

No one will dispute that John Young did not permanently reside in the town that bears his name. But did he actually settle there? Howard C. Aley, in A Heritage to Share, introduces a letter from a descendent of Daniel Shehy, one of the first to buy land from Young (1000 acres for $2000) and settle in Youngstown. He contends that it is Daniel Shehy, and not John Young, that built that first log cabin along the Mahoning and that Young did no more than travel back and forth between New York and Youngstown. There is evidence of a dispute between the two men over the land purchase, which in the end meant that Shehy only acquired 400 rather than 1000 acres. Might that help account for the conflicting narratives?

Whether Shehy played a larger role than most of the histories narrate will probably remain disputed. Sheehy was definitely one of the first to purchase land from Young. What is beyond question is that Young was involved in the surveys that gave shape to Youngstown, it was Young who purchased the land and sold it to Shehy and others and for this alone deserves a singular place in Youngstown history as that man who gave the city its name and had the vision of a thriving city on the banks of the Mahoning. 

[After writing this post, I heard from two Shehy descendents. In researching the article, I came across two spellings of the name, Sheehy and Shehy. I used the wrong one and have now corrected it. It is “Shehy.”]


Lighting a Candle


By Rolf Schweizer Fotografie from Hoffeld, Schweiz (Pourquoi?) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So much has been said and written about Charlottesville (including some by me over on my Facebook page). It’s pretty simple for me. Any group that says that America is only for white Euro-Americans is un-American (and un-Christian) and is espousing an evil ideology–particularly in the denigrating remarks made about Jews, Blacks, and others. Others have said this and more, and said it better.

I want to light a candle rather than add to the curses of this darkness. As a white American of German-Scots-Irish descent, I am so thankful that much of the country is not white like me, and how much richer we are as a nation because of this.

There are the Native peoples who were here before us, from whom we took the country. From Squanto without whom the Pilgrims may not have survived their first winter, to Will Rogers, the American humorist, to contemporary author Sherman Alexie whose writing has opened my eyes to contemporary reservation life, Native peoples contributed to our life. Many of our rivers and place names recognize their presence here before us.

The ancestors of many of our African-American citizens came here against their will. I sing in a choral group led by an Africa-American who has taught us about spirituals, and how they came out of the experience of slavery. Spirituals give voice to deep laments and hopeful longings, and have not only been a joy to sing but provided means to express emotions of the heart that my Anglo-Saxon upbringing failed to offer. Jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop all trace from these. Black athletes like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were childhood heroes. Jesse Owens, a Buckeye alumnus, courageously competed and won in the 1936 Olympics to the intense displeasure of Hitler and the Nazis. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to a distinguished career on the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as a mentor for Justice Elena Kagan. Patricia Bath is a path-breaking ophthalmologist who pioneered laser techniques for the treatment of cataracts. Colin Powell gave distinguished leadership in Operation Desert Storm, restoring freedom to the people of Kuwait.

Hispanic and Latino Americans have influenced our country since the 1700s when Fr. Junipero Serra engaged in missions work in California and shaped an architectural aesthetic that continues to influence California buildings. Joan Baez was one of the voices of folk music from the 1960’s on, whose songs gave voice to Vietnam protests. A collection of Christmas music featuring her clear, soprano voice is one I try to listen to every year. While we may think of many Latino entertainers and musicians from Jennifer Lopez to Carlos Santana, scientists like Luis Walter Alvarez, a Nobel prize winning physicist have advanced our scientific understanding. I don’t know who came up with salsa, whether we are talking about music, dance or the sauce, but I’m sure glad they are now part of our culture!

How grateful I am for Jonas Salk and his work to eliminate the scourge of polio! Gertrude P. Elion likewise pioneered treatment for childhood leukemia.  Blue jeans are, I think, one of the most practical articles of clothing. Thanks, Levi Strauss for making those first “Levis”! Another music icon of my youth, and Nobel Prize holder is Bob Dylan. “The Times They are a-Changing” articulate the turbulence and transformation taking place in the 1960’s. Irving Berlin and Barbara Streisand in music, Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall in film, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok in literature all enriched our cultural life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings brought insights into my own spirituality. Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld make us laugh. All these are Jewish-Americans.

Asian-American architect I. M. Pei designed the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in my former home of Cleveland. Likewise, architect Maya Lin helped begin to heal the wounds of Vietnam with her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Satya Nadella is the current CEO of Microsoft. Asian-Americans founded many of the technology companies that have transformed our culture, from Sun Microsystems to Linksys to Wang Laboratories. I’ve personally appreciated the writing and art of Makoto Fujimura. His illuminations of the Gospels are stunning. For years, I’ve delighted in recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral works by Seiji Ozawa.

I could go on and on. There are Middle Eastern peoples, more recent migrants from African countries, and other corners of the world. Some of the people I’ve written of have touched my life personally. Others have enriched our national life and shaped our world. You may disagree with some of my choices, and certainly you could add to them. Certainly European-Americans have also contributed to our national and cultural riches, but I can’t help thinking how impoverished our nation would be in so many ways without all these others. In everything from food to literature to medicine and law, to business and technology, our political life and our spirituality, we are much richer, I think because of the mosaic of peoples who make up our country. Sure, at times, it is complicated, and maybe we think privileging a single cultural heritage would make things simpler. I like to think of our culture as robust, made up of many different influences. Like a rich sauce, take out all those ingredients, and maybe things would be simpler, but also dull and uninteresting.

To my fellow citizens who are not Euro-Americans, I am so glad you are here. I know the words and acts of some would suggest otherwise. Perhaps those of us who think otherwise need to get better at raising our voices and reaching across our cultural differences and standing firm against the evil and the vile. What an interesting country we can make together. Might we begin by joining together to light a candle. . . ?


Review: Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the HuddleDon Everts, Val Gordon, Doug Schaupp. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores how Christian communities can move from being huddled groups to become witnessing, and even “conversion” communities where growth through people coming to faith becomes the norm.

One of the realities of many Christian communities, whether they are churches, or campus groups or groups in other places is that they are huddled. It is not that they don’t believe in sharing their faith with those who don’t believe, but that’s not happening very often, and even less often does someone actually come to faith. If these churches or groups grow, they usually grow from people who already believe and have joined them after leaving another group.

The writers of this book (a pastor and two collegiate ministers) believe that can change and write in the early chapters of this book of how groups can go from being huddled, to witnessing to becoming conversion communities where most of the growth is through people coming to faith. In the first three chapters, they explore the characteristics of each type of community and what communities have done to move from one type to another. They also note the reality of entropy, and how vision for evangelism quickly leaks and energy is lost.

Discipleship cycle

Discipleship Cycle

In Part Two, they outline two “macrostrategies” to help groups transition from huddled to witnessing communities. One is to nurture discipleship momentum through incorporating the discipleship cycle in which hearing the word is followed by making an active response, which is then debriefed. This third step is often neglected meaning that people have experiences but do not reflect on their significance and to what God might next be calling one. Only this kind of transforming discipleship can sustain witness.

They then turn to the need to mobilize relational witness. Here they draw on earlier work by Everts and Schaupp (I Once Was Lost) in integrating an understanding of the “five thresholds of post-modern conversion” into a community’s life. These steps recognize that in coming to faith, many people cross thresholds from trusting a Christian to becoming curious to opening up to change to actively seeking to entering the kingdom. In this book, they extend these ideas to how communities can respond appropriately to people at different points in their journey to faith.

5 thresholds

Five Thresholds

Part Three is perhaps the most significant part of this book as the authors talk about the dynamics of conversion communities, where people are regularly coming to faith. They explore the significance of lingering in “God moments,” lifting up their eyes, and laboring in the harvest. In these ways, God moments become God movements. The most significant insight for me was the idea of not being content with individual conversions but looking for whether God may be doing something more in which many others might also come to faith. These communities also align their vision, their structures, and their efforts to develop people around these God movements. The concluding part talks about how one leads the change and in fact incarnates the change.

This is a hopeful book, even for the many who might still feel they are in the huddle. The authors write at the beginning:

“Every athlete needs to take a knee for some time as she circles up with her teammates to figure out the next play. But then the team breaks the huddle and heads back out to the playing field. Breaking the huddle is an inherently hopeful, purposeful thing to do. May all our communities break the huddle and engage in the next play God has for us.”

The authors give not only a number of practical how-to’s but share their own journeys of discovery along the way. They lay out the work to be done, but also the hope for real change in our communities. Each chapter concludes with a prayer, and questions groups studying through this book can use together, making this ideal for church or ministry leadership teams.

Doug and Val are colleagues and friends in the collegiate ministry which is my day job. What I most appreciate about what they have done here (along with Don Everts!) is to integrate into a seamless whole different “pieces” of ministry strategy, weaving them together with a narrative of transforming communities from huddled to witnessing to conversion, and moving from isolated “God moments” to ongoing “God movements.” They tell a story rooted in God’s gracious intentions to draw people to himself, and recover for us the wonder of being communities instrumental in seeing significant numbers of those people experience new life in Christ.

Review: Three Days in January

Three Days in January

Three Days in JanuaryBret Baier with Catherine Whitney. New York, William Morrow, 2017.

Summary: An account of the final three days of the Eisenhower presidency, focused around his farewell speech, highlighting Eisenhower’s principled leadership and contribution to the nation.

Dwight Eisenhower is the first president I remember. My recollections seem to be mostly of Eisenhower on the golf course. He didn’t hold the attention of this five-year old when he spoke. He faded quickly into the background when the dashing Jack Kennedy took office. His successors were much in the news in my growing up and adult years from the Vietnam war to Watergate and the pardon to the Iranian hostage crisis to “morning in America” to “shock and awe.” I didn’t think much about Ike as a president, probably more as the general who led us to victory in Europe in World War Two.

Bret Baier suggests that a re-assessment might be worth it. Behind the bland exterior was a president who ended the Korean War and presided over eight years free of war (if not the threat of nuclear war, which he skillfully addressed). He launched the Interstate Highway System revolutionizing travel and transport in America. He signed some of the earliest civil rights legislation (though many will criticize him for not going further) and balanced budgets. He argues he gave the right kind of presidential leadership to a nation weary of Depression and war.

Baier explores the life and contribution of this president through the window of his last three days in office beginning with his Farewell Speech, most known for his prescient warnings against the “military-industrial complex.” But first he goes back. He begins with narrating the meeting he had with recently victorious Jack Kennedy in early December, and Eisenhower’s determination to make a much better transition than Truman had in handing the presidency over to him, briefing the incoming president on everything from the policy apparatus he had put in place (which Kennedy dismantled) to world and domestic situations.  Significantly, he briefed him on a covert operation in the planning stages against Castro’s Cuba involving a landing in the Bay of Pigs. He warned against moving forward unless adequate leadership was in place. Kennedy mistook this for an endorsement of the operation.

Baier then recaps Eisenhower’s life from boyhood, to military service to his rise to the Allied command, post war activities, and his entry into politics as a very apolitical Republican (much to Truman’s disappointment, perhaps accounting for the frosty reception he gave Eisenhower).

He recounts the Farewell Speech itself, which he sees as modeled after Washington’s. He explores the writing of the speech and Eisenhower’s interactions with his speechwriters. He describes a relationship with Congress that was “interdependent,” striking because Democrats were in the majority for six of the eight years of his presidency. Eisenhower regularly hosted bipartisan meetings of Congressional leadership and fostering warm personal relations with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson.

He describes the hostile global situation, particularly significant because of the chill in relations with the Soviets despite Ike’s efforts to pursue peace, recognizing the necessity of a strong deterrence. He had fought along with the Soviets against Germany, forging personal ties with General Zhukov, and hoped it could eventuate in a more durable peace, which was not to be. He goes on to discuss Ike’s frustration both with the false accusations of a “gap” in the arms race when the U.S. enjoyed superiority, and with his inability to find a way out  of that race, which he recognized an exercise in futility.

Finally, he turned to the “military-industrial” complex in which peace-time defense industries and their survival threatened to co-opt American foreign policy for its own perpetuation. He warned:

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The concluding section of Baier’s book covers the last three days. He discusses the thorough work Eisenhower did in planning the transition from his end to provide continuity and to allow the new president to be able to lead well from day one. He held a good-bye press conference. On his last day, he dealt with the huge snowfall that blanketed D.C. and prepared to greet the incoming president and for the handing off of power. He said goodbyes to the White House staff, met the Kennedys, heard Kennedy’s magnificent address, and then departed for Gettysburg.

He would meet again with Kennedy a few months later at Camp David, where he discussed the failed Bay of Pigs mission with Kennedy and helped him debrief that experience and consider how he would handle future instances of proposed actions. Eisenhower unfailingly offered his advice when sought, wrote his memoirs and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity until his health failed in 1968 and he passed in 1969.

Baier’s account seemed to me more adulatory than a balanced history. Yet he underscored several important points about Eisenhower worth consideration by our present political leaders. One was his willingness to work with the whole Congress and not just his own party. There was clarity about the common task they shared to serve the whole country, even while they differed at times how to do so. Country was always ahead of personal ambition. A second was the soldier committed to pursuing peace, perhaps truer to his Quaker roots than many thought him. He got the country out of Korea and kept it out of war, while never sacrificing a clear-eyed strong defense. And finally, he was a man of principle, not perfect but honorable. Baier’s point is that these are qualities that we should look for in all of our presidents, something I cannot dispute. The tougher question to my mind is, why don’t we?

Review: Beauty for Truth’s Sake

Beauty for Truths Sake

Beauty for Truth’s Sake, Stratford Caldecott, (foreword Ken Myers). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017 (my review is of the 2009 edition).

Summary: An argument for the unity of faith and reason, beauty and truth, the sciences and the humanities, and for the recovery of education as a lifelong pursuit of wisdom, both rooted in and eventuating in liturgical worship.

As one who has long worked around universities, the fragmentation of knowledge among the disparate disciplines is an established fact. Those who teach in the humanities, and in the sciences often hold each other in mutual suspicion if not contempt, and speak in languages often unintelligible to each other. One of the few things that unites a number of these people is a shared suspicion toward religious faith (sometimes, but not always, warranted by stupid or wicked things done in God’s name).

In this work, Stratford Caldecott contends for an ancient, and yet contemporary vision of a restored unity of knowledge that brings together arts and humanities, math and the sciences, the beautiful and the true, reason and faith in a “re-enchantment” of education that leads to wisdom, and worship. He writes in his Introduction:

“I believe it is possible to remain an active learner throughout life, and yet to maintain a moral compass in good working order. But vital though they are, adaptability and ethics are not enough by themselves. There is a structural flaw in our education that we need to overcome. It is related to a profound malaise in our civilization, which by progressive stages has slipped into a way of thinking and living that is dualistic in character. The divisions between arts and sciences, between faith and reason, between nature and grace, have a common root. In particular, our struggle to reconcile religious faith with modern science is symptomatic of a failure to understand the full scope of human reason and its true grandeur” (p. 12).

Caldecott would argue that our modern fragmented education divorces meaning from fact, dooming the humanities to solipsism and the sciences to sterility. He would argue, along with Dorothy Sayers (in The Lost Tools of Learning) for a restoration of the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, and an adaptation of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music, expanded for additional disciplines). He believes that the key to the unity of these disciplines is beauty, which serves as a pointer to truth, as well as goodness. He connects the recovery of the poetic imagination with its focus on symbol to the recognition of the symbolic in the scientific study of the natural world, opening us to the wonder of what is beyond. He explores the beauty and symbolism in math and geometry, the structure and beauty of music, and concludes with how this “re-enchanted” cosmology finds its consummation in liturgy.

What I most appreciated in this work is the sense of the recovery of wonder in our inquiry. In the modern academy, it seems that one of the prices paid for advancing in proficiency, whether in “getting good data” in science, or in applying critical theory to historical events or literary works is the loss of wonder–the joy of a good story, admiration for a historical figure, appreciation of the structure of the cosmos. Certainly this is not always so, but to see the wide-eyed wonder of young scholars replaced by cynicism is grievous whenever it happens, and I cannot help but think that the educational flaws Caldecott critiques contribute to this loss.

Where Caldecott may be critiqued is in his “Christian Platonism” that views our language, our numbers, our physical world pointing to a world beyond–the world of forms, ideas, perhaps all found in the mind or person of God. I have to confess that I don’t have the philosophical wherewithal to critique or defend this idea, and I haven’t thought of things in quite these terms. I do believe that all human artistry, and the artistry of the physical world is a reflection of the Great Artist in a general sense. But I’m not as sure about the effort to “symbolize” all physical reality as a signifier of transcendent reality. There is something that feels as if it could be forced to me, akin to those who try to find some spiritual lesson in everything and sometimes reach some pretty wacky conclusions. I think I’d rather be open to beauty where I find it, to be attentive to what it points toward, and aware that we sing God’s songs, and think his thoughts after Him.

I’m not sure if that makes me a Christian Platonist or not. And perhaps that points to the goodness of this book, that it is making me think and re-examine my own understanding. It makes me think about how I relate goodness, truth, and beauty, how it is that I can claim reason and faith are not at odds and that there is an underlying unity to all knowledge. It poses the question to me in my work of how I can claim to suggest that the integration of faith, learning, and practice are a possibility in the modern university, and not just a slogan. Most of all, it inspires me afresh to think of how wonder might lead to doxology.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Loyal Son

Loyal Son

The Loyal SonDaniel Mark Epstein. New York: Ballantine Books, 2017.

Summary: The history of relations between Ben and his illegitimate son William Franklin, from filial loyalty to estranged parties as a consequence of the Revolutionary War, and each man’s choices.

I’ve read a biography of Ben Franklin and numerous histories of the Revolutionary War, and had never realized how deeply estranged Franklin and his son were until I read Daniel Mark Epstein’s well-researched study of the lives and the tragic relationship of these two men.

It was not always so. William, an illegitimate offspring of Franklin’s, was raised as a son by him and Deborah. They worked side by side in the affairs of Philadelphia, fought alongside each other against Indian attacks, and went to England together to plead against the Penn family, who as proprietors of Pennsylvania enjoyed an exemption from taxes for defense of the Commonwealth. Franklin supported William in his legal studies while William was at his side in his laboratory and often his emissary in legal pleadings with the Solicitor General. They were engaged together in a land deal for western lands. William gained such a reputation that he even marched in George III’s coronation procession while Ben observed from a distance. While in England William met and married Elizabeth, shortly before they all left for America.

For a few short years, the family was together as Elizabeth gave birth to William Temple Franklin (who would be known as Temple). Ben returned to England as a representative of the colonies for their growing list of grievances against England. William eventually secures an appointment from the Royal Court as governor of New Jersey. From here their paths begin to diverge. Ben becomes increasingly disenchanted with England and concludes that independence for the colonies is the only answer. William remains a loyal to the crown, executing his office well (New Jersey being among the last to join to movement for independence). When Ben becomes involved in the cause against fellow governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, the divide becomes greater.

After a brief return to America in 1775 (after Deborah had died of stroke during his long absence) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Ben went to France as America’s emissary, taking Temple, who played a role similar to William in his earlier years. Before he departed, he tried to intercede with William to withdraw from his governorship gracefully.  William, stood firm, until finally arrested. When paroled, he acted subversively, endorsing pardons of New Jersey loyalists and otherwise acting to subvert the revolution. When discovered, William is imprisoned under deplorable conditions in Litchfield. Ostensibly, Ben does, and can do nothing without seeming in complicity with the son and giving fodder to his own enemies in the colonies. Eventually, in ill health, he is released, but too late to comfort Elizabeth, who dies in New York City. Instead of leaving the country, William continues efforts to mobilize loyalists in subversive activities in support of England, including and indirect role in the seizure and hanging death of hated Captain Jack Huddy.

Only when peace is finally achieved is an attempt made at reconciliation. William makes the first move, in a moving letter of apology to his father, to which Ben responds with coldness. Eventually the two meet, but only for William to sign over lands to satisfy debts to his father. They remained estranged for the rest of their lives, and it was Temple, and not William, who remained in England on a government pension, who inherited from Ben. Sadly, Temple did not otherwise benefit from the influence of his illustrious grandfather, living a dissolute life without direction or purpose.

The “loyal” in Epstein’s title underscores the crux of this book, William’s choice of loyalty to Crown above family. It might have been one thing had he fulfilled his office of governor until displaced. His persistence in the loyalist cause, against all his father and family held dear was fatal to his relationship with Ben, who could not forgive this. Yet one wonders if things might have been different had Ben been more present as a father, particularly in that critical period after he was arrested, and eventually transported to Connecticut. Did his resistance stem in part from his father’s absence when his mother Deborah’s health was failing, while Franklin engaged in affairs with other women?

While William comes off as stubborn, and from an American point of view, a traitor to his country, Ben Franklin comes off little better, and perhaps worse–more interested in money owed than in restoring the son who once worked and fought at his side. Each had betrayed the loyalty of the other, yet it is a mark against the legacy of the elder Franklin that he was so unwilling to forgive. One may attribute this to the exigencies of war which often presses people to hard choices, yet in Epstein’s telling, the elder Franklin comes off poorly.

Epstein shows us a side of Ben Franklin’s life that has been muted in many portrayals of this founder, as well as giving us a full-bodied rendering of William. One unusual aspect of this rendering is the debt Epstein acknowledges to William Herbert Mariboe, whose unpublished 1962 doctoral dissertation on William Franklin he calls “the best biography of William Franklin ever written.” One wonders what might have been if such generosity had existed between father and son Franklin. Sadly, that is a story not to be told.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Inspiring Teachers


Scanned photo of Norman Erickson. Source, 1972 Lariat (photographer unknown)

Believe it or not, kids in many communities will be starting back to school in the next few weeks. In elementary school, we would always stand around outside on the first day of school, waiting for the bell to ring, and asking each other who we were going to have for a teacher and wondering what he or she was like. Some kids would always have the “down low” and could tell you who was interesting, fun, or mean. Then the bell rang, and there was the moment of truth. You took your seat, the teacher took the role and you started figuring out just what kind of year it was going to be.

I’ve been thinking about inspiring teachers recently because of a book I’m reading that talks about the beauty of math. It brought back memories of Mr. Erickson, who taught algebra, geometry, and computer science at Chaney. I didn’t always enjoy math, but I enjoyed his classes because he enjoyed math. He’d come up with great illustrations, sometimes corny, as when he used the imaginary friend “Harvey” to talk about imaginary numbers.

That set me to thinking about all the inspiring teachers I’d had during my years of school. It all begins with Mrs. Smith, who taught first grade at Washington Elementary. She taught me how to read, opening up worlds of wonder I continue to explore to this day. Mrs. Vidis was tough and strict as my fifth grade teacher. I could be lazy at times and she pushed me to do my best when I was willing to settle for “OK.” I had terrible handwriting. It is marginally better today because of Mrs. Vidis. In sixth grade, Mrs. Welch opened my eyes to the world. I still remember a mock United Nations unit we did, and having to learn about so many countries. She made world affairs and geography come to life.

Miss Stephenson taught music at West Junior High, and I think it was here that I realized how much I liked choral singing. I’m only sorry that I was too busy being “macho” to admit it until much later in life. Mr. Crann taught English and I remember how hard he worked to help us express ourselves clearly and to inspire us with great ideas. It was in his class that I first encountered William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” with its closing verse:

It matters not how strait the gate, 
      How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 
When Mr. Crann read it, he made it sound like the anthem of his life. Perhaps it was.

I’ve already written about Mr. Erickson, my high school math teacher. I also remember science teachers like Mr. Tanoff  in Chemistry and Mr. O’Connor in physics. Mrs. Stamler was a young English teacher who introduced us to the classics and helped us relate what we were reading to our own lives. Miss Foster taught an innovative Art of the Motion Picture class that taught us to really watch rather than passively enjoy a film. Mrs. Bisciglia and Miss Kemp both taught me about writing, mostly through a lot of red ink!

I went on to Youngstown State for college. Dr. Mark Masaki in psychology (my major) was always the toughest but whether we were talking about the uses and abuses of statistics, behaviorism, or neurophysiology, he pushed you, made you think, and brought his “A game” to every class. Dr. Leslie Domonkos made history interesting for the first time in my life and it has been ever since. Dr. James Houck in English did the same thing. I only took his class in the Romantic period of English lit because my girlfriend (now my wife) was and I still love the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot because of him. He also led a discussion group over Lent one year on the works of C. S. Lewis who I was just then discovering.

Our parents sent us to school because they wanted us to have a better life than they did. It will be an interesting question on the other side of eternity as to who really has had the “better” life. What I do know is that I was inspired and enriched by a number of teachers along the way who taught me not only how to do things, but also helped me understand the world I live in and delight in it. They helped me ask big questions and aspire to high standards. As I remember them there are two words that summarize my feelings toward all these men and women who passed along to me their passion for what they loved:

Thank you.